A federal judge has overturned the convictions of five New Orleans police officers who were accused of killing two unarmed citizens in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, thanks to "grotesque misconduct" by the prosecutors. U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt has ordered a retrial for all five defendants, a decision that is already re-opening old wounds in a city still torn by the epic mismanagement and misconduct in the wake of the storm.
The controversial and emotional case stemmed from one of the most notorious tragedies that came to symbolize of the post-storm chaos that swept New Orleans back in the fall of 2005. With streets flooded and desperate residents trying to escape the city, police responded to a report of officers being fired on from the Danziger Bridge, where many residents had tried to find dry shelter. When they arrived on the scene, a large group of officers opened fire on a group of citizens, seriously wounding four and killing two others, including a mentally disabled man who was shot in the back. After discovering the men were unarmed, the cops allegedly worked to cover the incident up, in part by arresting the brother of one of the victims.
As the case wound through the legal system, federal officials eventually took over, bringing civil rights charges against five of the officers, who were found guilty in 2011. The cops —Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Anthony Villavasso, Robert Faulcon, and Arthur Kaufman — were given sentences ranging from six to 65 years.
During the sentencing phase, however, questions began to be raised about the behavior of the prosecutors, who (according to one defense attorney) were so desperate to win a conviction that they "did anything and everything ethical or not" to make it happen. They were accused of making questionable plea deals with some cooperating witnesses, leaking evidence to the media, and in the most egregious violation of ethics, the prosecuting attorneys allegedly left anonymous comments on the website of New Orleans Times-Picayune, in an attempt to prejudice the community against the defendants and the police department.
Even though the judge found no fault with the evidence and testimony, he cited the "unprecedented events and acts" as the reason for the ordering of a new trial. At least three members of the U.S. attorney's office have already lost their jobs as a result of the investigation.
Judge Engelhardt also made particularly note of the irony that what started as a case about corruption and the abuse of power by those in authority, has turned those very same charges back at the accusers. (Federal prosecutors only stepped in after local prosecutions crumbled under the same fate.) In his angry 129-page decision, the judge wrote "After much reflection, the court cannot journey as far as it has in this case only to ironically accept grotesque prosecutorial misconduct in the end." In a city that's been plagued for years with official corruption and distrust of the legal system, it's a stunning blow to find that one of the few successful attempts to hold officials to account could be undone by the misconduct of others.